The screwy rules for mayoral succession

Pub date November 23, 2010

EDITORIAL The clerk of the Board of Supervisors, at the request of Board President David Chiu, has released a proposal for the selection process for a new mayor, and it’s about as complicated and confusing as everyone expected. That’s in part the result of the vagueness of the City Charter, which simply specifies that a vacancy in the office of mayor shall be filled by a San Francisco registered voter chosen by a majority of the supervisors but offers no procedural clues on how to get there. And the Political Reform Act sets very strict limits on conflicts of interest for elected officials in California; a supervisor, for example, can’t vote for himself or herself or do anything to promote his or her candidacy for an office that comes with a pay raise.

In the end, the proposal leaves limited room for public input — and makes it very difficult for any sitting supervisor, particularly one of the progressives, to wind up winning the job.

The way the rules are laid out, the board would accept nominations — but any sitting supervisor who accepted the nomination would have to leave the room at once, cease all communication with his or her colleagues, and play no role in further deliberations or voting. Since it’s entirely possible that several supervisors — and possibly several progressives — could be nominated, the process would cripple the final outcome since the only ones allowed to vote would be the remaining board members whose names aren’t in the mix.

That skews the outcome heavily toward one of two options: the supervisors appoint someone who isn’t on the board — or Chiu winds up as both acting mayor and board president because nobody else can muster six votes. The only other option: The progressives all stick together, line up in advance behind a candidate who’s currently on the board, and find one more vote for that person.

The whole thing is so screwy that the supervisors ought to make some changes before they adopt it and try, to the extent that it’s legal, to inject some sanity into the process.

For example: Instead of opening the nominations, collecting a long list of names, sending all of the sitting supervisors on that list out of the room and then voting, the board could take the names one at a time. A supervisor gets nominated, leaves the room, and the votes are tallied; if he or she has fewer than six, the process starts again. (The problem: who goes first — because the first person eliminated can’t be nominated again. To be fair, there would have to be some sort of random drawing of which supervisor could make the first nomination — which alone might add too much random chance to the outcome.)

Then there’s the question of when this all takes place. If the process starts now and an interim mayor is chosen, the board will have to reconfirm that person Jan. 4 when Gavin Newsom actually resigns to take over as lieutenant governor. There’s a chance something could go wrong in the meantime and the board would have to change its vote, and there’s a chance that state law would prevent a supervisor who won from acting in any way to influence the final vote. But those are better risks than the option of leaving everything to the last day. And if the board decides that it can’t or shouldn’t act until Jan. 4, special meetings ought to be calendared for Jan. 5, 6, and 7 to give the current board more than one day to make the final decision.

And before anything happens, the board needs to schedule at lest one open hearing to get input from the public on the qualifications for the next mayor and on potential candidates.

The bottom line: any candidate who wants to get progressive support needs to be willing to do more than sign legislation and manage the city. He or she needs to be willing to use political capital and the mayor’s bully pulpit to make the case for progressive change — on taxes, services, the budget, and an overall civic vision. And the six board members on the left need to stick together, or that won’t happen.